Is it Spanish or Castilian?

June 18, 2013 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I decided to write about something we all know and many of us are sick and tired of: The eternal question that we as interpreters are constantly asked by the agency, the client, and the lay person: Is it Spanish or is it Castilian?

If you are a Spanish interpreter, translator, or even a native Speaker you will understand either term as one that is used to refer to the language spoken by the majority of the people who live in Spain, Latin America, Equatorial Guinea, and some parts of North America.  Of course, you will have a preference for one or the other depending where you grew up or learned the language, but you will understand (and occasionally use) both terms.  The problem is that when we are working as Spanish interpreters, sometimes we are asked by the agency or by the client to “speak Castilian instead of Spanish” or we may even be rejected from an assignment because we are Spanish interpreters and they are looking for a “Castilian interpreter.”

To set the record straight we should tell our inquisitor or prospective client that historically Spanish is a Romance language that comes from Latin, and it is called Spanish as it comes from españón in Old Spanish, which most likely comes from the Vulgar Latin hispani­ōne or hispaniolus, because the Romans referred to Spain as Hispania.  Then we explain that Castile is a word derived from the Latin castella (castle-land) that comes from the also Latin term castrum (fortress or castle) That it was a border region of Spain next to the Moorish territories. That at the end of the Middle Ages, with the assistance of the Kingdom of Aragon, the Kingdom of Castile expelled these Moorish rulers from the peninsula. In those days, before Spain was a single country, the people from this kingdom were called Castilians and the language they spoke, which evolves from the old Castilian, was known as Castilian. With time, and the expansion of the Spanish crown in the world, including the Americas, the entire region was called Spain in England, Espagne in France, and the non-Portuguese people from the peninsular region and their language became known as Spanish.  In the Americas the native speakers picked their favorite term to refer to the same language as well.  Some regions, like the Viceroyalty of New Spain (present Mexico and parts of the United States) preferred the term Spanish as they were part of the Spanish monarchy; others, like the Captaincy General de Guatemala (present Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and parts of Mexico) chose Castilian thinking of the original rulers who sponsored the first expeditions and their representatives in the new world, who were from Castile.

In Spain, the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) used the term Castilian in the past, but since 1923 its dictionary has used the term Spanish when referring to the language spoken by more than 300 million people around the world. In fact, its dictionary is called Dictionary of the Spanish Language (diccionario de la lengua española) The language academies from the other Spanish-speaking countries, including the United States, are grouped under the Association of Spanish Language Academies, which participated in the creation of the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas, a dictionary that encompasses mistakes and doubts in Spanish whose production was agreed upon by all 22 national language academies.  The dictionary states the following: “…it is preferable to keep the term Castilian to refer to the Romance language born in the Kingdom of Castile during the Middle Ages, or to the dialect of Spanish currently spoken in that region…” (Diccionario panhispánico de dudas. 2005)

Therefore, the official recommendation is to use Spanish over Castilian.

In Spain, the constitution states that “Castilian is the official language of the State…” In reality, multilingual regions tend to refer to the language as Castilian to tell it apart from their own native languages. Monolingual regions tend to use the term Spanish when referring to the language they speak.  In Latin America and elsewhere, the constitutions of these countries use the term Castilian: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. These other nations use the term Spanish in their constitution: Costa Rica, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. No term is mentioned in the constitution of: Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Uruguay.

The reality is that it really does not matter which term is used to refer to the third most spoken language in the world, and the second most widely spoken on earth. The important issue we need to understand is that when non-Spanish speakers ask us to interpret Castilian instead of Spanish, they are not talking about the language we speak because they do not know that there is only one Spanish (or Castilian) They are trying to tell us that they want a “universal” more general Spanish (although some of us do not believe there is such a thing and I will address it on another blog entry) They are trying to reach more people and they do not know how. It can also mean that they want the interpreter to stay away from Spanglish (a mix of Spanish and English) and Portuñol (a mix of Portuguese and Spanish) and because of the people they have worked with in the past, they do not know that by hiring a professional capable interpreter they do not need to worry about these issues. So the next time somebody asks you to interpret in Castilian or rejects you from speaking Spanish instead of Castilian, take a deep breath, explain as much, or as little, as you think necessary, and assure the client that you will interpret in Castilian.  I ask you to please share your ideas as to what to do to educate the client about this topic while taking the appropriate business measures and steps to keep the client.  Please do not write about why it is better to call it Spanish or Castilian.

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§ 12 Responses to Is it Spanish or Castilian?

  • Veronica Barzelatto says:

    As always Tony I really enjoyed reading this log. Just for the record, there may not be any official mention in Chile of the term, but until I .came to the US I never referred to the language I spoke as “español” but I said I spoke “castellano”. I of course always knew they were one and the same with the country differences in accent and colloquialisms.

    Yes it is annoying to have to go through the explanation, though I´ll confess my has never been as long or as thoroughly researched as yours.

  • Very interesting post!

    One thing I have found, traveling in Spain or speaking to citizens of that country, is that for them this is a politically sensitive issue. As one, a Republican refugee in South America, gruffly told me long ago when I mentioned “our common language, Spanish”: “Jovencito, lo que usted habla es el castellano, porque idiomas españoles los hay a espuertas”.

    In a nutshell, Castilian is sometimes perceived by the other ethnicities in the Kingdom as to have been *imposed* on them – so much so, that it took to itself the name of the whole country. Britons speak English, not British; Israelis speak Hebrew, not Israeli; Canadians may speak English or French, but none of the languages arrogated to itself the title “Canadian”.

    Castilian did; and I try to give the whole issue as wide a berth as I can.

    • However, we should also mention that in Russia they speak Russian; Norway – Norwegian; Sweden – Swedish; Germany – German etc etc. Also one must not forget that in the north western part of Spain, Gallego, which in its own right is an official language, is spoken by some 3 million Spaniards.

  • My friend, Allan Tépper, was the first person to call my attention to it. I think it was around 2002-2003. Until then I was not aware of the term “Castilian” as the name of a language He wrote about it here:

    Interesting, Tony.

  • Heleen Sittig (@heleensittig) says:

    Some time ago a client thanked me for my services and he told me he especially liked the fact ‘that I do not speak Spanish’. After noticing the puzzled expression on my face, he explained to me that that I speak Castilian and that is much better. It turned out that he meant that I do not speak European Spanish but rather Latin American Spanish.

    I must confess that in a case like that I do not bother to explain or to educate the client.

  • Nancy Koontz says:

    Thank you for publishing this detaliled article, now we have the written prove of the truth, for the ones who don’t want to believe it, specially some students!

  • Connie says:

    Having grown up in Peru, the way it was explained to me was that Castellano (Castilian) was the kind of Spanish we spoke, and that the term “Spanish” was meant to encompass the many variations thereof, such as those spoken in North and Central America. Just as they speak French in Canada and Louisiana, but you denote that it is Creole French or Canadian French. To me, Castilian is a proper term for what I was raised to speak and Spanish for what I have picked up in my travels and as an immigrant.

  • P Diane Schneider says:


  • Carlos says:

    My family is from the Valencian Community in Spain. It’s a bilingual region, so as you said, we call Spanish “castellano” – but we think of “español” as a synonym.

    In the US, I’ve heard some English speakers call Spanish from Spain “Castillian” to differentiate it from the many forms of Spanish in Latin America (I assume they’re not aware of Andalusian Spanish). I was initially surprised but I could see why they’d do that. It was a greater shock when I learned that some Spanish speakers consider castellano and español to be substantively different, and not in the same way that the English speakers had meant it. It’s fascinating.

  • Lolita says:

    I appreciate the explanation of the languages for I truly want to educate my ESOL students better moving forward. It was frustrating to have students wait until the last five weeks of class to report Google Translate was not working for them, and I thought they were making excuses to learn the information. The information you provided needs to be distributed to U.S. public school systems for limited resources will only deprive the success of ESOL students who deserve a chance to succeed. Once I read your blog, I compared the two websites to discover the difference, so THANK YOU for helping me reach my students.

  • Francesc says:

    I’m Spanish and from a bilingual community (Valencia). To me they mean the same, but I prefer to say “Castilian” for a simple fact. If you say “Spanish” it means that in Spain there is only one language, and it’s not, apart from Spanish/Castilian, we also have Catalan (known as Valencian in my community), Basque and Gallician. It’s true that the RAE (Real Academia Española) prefers tp use the term Spanish, but I think it’s a way to discriminate less powerful languages that are struggling to survive.

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